Beyond the Glass
You can’t easily see the difference between a $500 riflescope and a $2500 model. But ultimately, you’ll realize the difference.
At most of the annual hunting and shooting shows attended by high-end manufacturers exhibiting their wares, there is a phenomenon known as “the whistler.” This refers to the old boy that wanders up to a booth, inspects one of the products on display, and inquires, “How much is one ‘o them things?”
When given the answer, his eyes widen, he purses his lips and emits a long whistle, or perhaps a “hoooooeeee,” quickly puts down the item he was admiring as if it suddenly began burning his fingers, and stealthily backs away into the crowd as if he were confronted by a rabid dog.
Whistlers are especially common these days at riflescope displays, as the cost of premium optics is reaching well into four figures. You can’t blame the old boy for a bit of sticker shock. After all, the scope company just down the aisle is offering the greatest riflescope ever invented for $129.95, fresh off the boat from China and made with the finest multicoated Coke bottle lenses. Just buy one of those, their advertising claims, and you will instantly become an accomplished sniper capable of drilling a fly at 1000 yards.
We’ve all whistled a bit, I’ll wager, when looking at the prices of top-end riflescopes. $1000, $2000, even $3000 or more is not unusual at all these days for premium optics. The problem is, from the outside, every riflescope looks about the same…a black tube with a couple of dials attached, with some glass at each end. What makes one scope require a second mortgage, while another can be purchased with little more than pocket change? Is there really that much of a difference?
The short answer is yes. The longer answer is more involved. For just like a bottle of Scotch, a computer, a fine watch, or even a human being, with riflescopes, it’s what’s inside that counts.
Certainly, the quality of the glass inside a riflescope is a major consideration. That, though, is a topic unto itself for another day. About the last thing anyone thinks about when investing in a riflescope is the hardware store of little pieces and parts inside that black tube. The truth of the matter is that those tiny screws, springs and funny-looking components are what determine if your riflescope will perform for a lifetime or two, or self-destruct at the worst possible time.
Not long ago, I had the privilege of touring the Nightforce Optics, Inc. manufacturing facility in Orofino, Idaho. I thought I knew a lot about riflescopes. I was wrong. We spent an entire afternoon going through one of their NXS riflescopes, piece by piece, comparing it to competitors’ products. I’ll never look at, or through, a riflescope in the same way again.
A modern variable-power riflescope can have over 100 individual components. The inherent quality of those parts, the precision with which they are machined, and the care with which they are assembled are the primary reasons why a really good scope carries a whistler’s price tag…and why that price is justified.
Rifles and riflescopes are not a marriage made in heaven. The tremendous recoil produced by big bore and magnum calibers is transferred directly to the scope. Your shoulder can testify to the shock they produce. Precision optical instruments require microscopic tolerances, absolutely perfect alignment and delicate components. It is not unlike strapping an impeccably made Swiss watch to a hammer and repeatedly pounding 10-penny nails. Something has to give, and it’s not going to be the hammer.
The only way that marriage is going to survive is if the riflescope is built with the best possible materials, and the best is not cheap. For example, you might have heard the term “repeatability” applied to elevation and windage adjustments. What this means is that if your riflescope is calibrated for ¼ inch adjustments, you want to be certain that one click is precisely ¼ inch the day you take it out of the box and ten years from now. You need to be confident that no matter how many elevation adjustments you’ve made over the years, that it is repeatable—exactly ¼ inch every time—whether it’s below freezing or brutally hot, after thousands of shots, after years of hard use. It also means that your shots must be repeatable…no surprises, no variation in point of impact today, tomorrow, or a decade from now.
This is not something easily accomplished by the scope maker. Metal fatigue, wear and recoil will, over time, cause the elevation and windage adjustments in an average riflescope to become sloppy. That ¼ inch becomes 3/8 inch, then a half inch, then even worse, until making an adjustment becomes a new and different experience every time. That same wear will also cause your rifle to easily stray from zero at the least provocation, with no advance notice.
Elevation and windage adjustments are essentially internal screws that move the scope’s erector tube (containing the reticle) up and down and side to side within the scope. This system is held in place, and constant pressure maintained, by two metal leaf springs. The Nightforce people showed me the type of spring common to average-quality riflescopes; it is a simple, thin piece of steel, costing a few pennies.
Then they showed me the springs used in some of their riflescopes. They are pure titanium, cut precisely to length. It spends a couple of weeks in a polishing tumbler before going into a scope, even though it already seems perfectly smooth. This spring costs several dollars. Why go to this trouble and expense? Because titanium, they explained, is the only known metal that can be compressed and held in place for years without developing fatigue or “memory.” It is virtually impervious to wear. It is tumbled to assure that there are no rough spots or burrs to interfere with perfectly smooth operation. It ensures no loss of integrity, and absolute repeatability.
The screws themselves that control the elevation adjustments in Nightforce riflescopes are made of a proprietary alloy, also resistant to wear. The threads are cut with sophisticated CNC machinery to tolerances so fine, so precise, that male and female components must be assembled by hand. No machine is sufficiently accurate. It would be much less expensive to machine coarser threads and assemble everything by automation, as is the case with many riflescopes. But, the price the customer pays is lack of repeatability out of the box, and increased susceptibility to wear.
Soft metals that wear are less costly. Hard metals that don’t are expensive. Even the tiny screws that hold a riflescope’s internal components together are critical in the longevity and reliability of your scope. Inexpensive screws with coarse threads work loose and fall victim to repeated recoil. Hearing something rattling in your riflescope is generally not a good sign.
Scope manufacturers and their ad agencies love to sing the praises of the lenses used in their products. Without a doubt, the quality of the glass and its coatings are major contributors to the resolution and clarity you see through a scope. What you don’t hear, though, is about the corners that are often cut in how a manufacturer assembles those lenses.
Just about all riflescope tubes are now made of aluminum. Aluminum and glass react to heat and cold differently, expanding and contracting at different rates. The easy, and inexpensive, way to assemble a riflescope is to simply glue the lenses to the aluminum tube. When such a scope is subjected to extremes of temperature, however, and glass and aluminum go their separate ways, it will easily throw the lenses out of alignment. If you wear glasses, and tilt them forward or backward, you have seen firsthand what this misalignment does to image quality. Changes in expansion rates can also affect your point of impact. In extreme cases, it can affect the seal between glass and tube, allowing moisture to enter, and even result in a broken lens.
So, I asked the Nightforce people, how do you avoid that? Their answer was that Nightforce lenses are bedded by hand, using a proprietary bonding agent between glass and tube that eliminates any direct glass-to-metal contact. The two materials can merrily expand and contract to their heart’s content without affecting each other in the least. Again, it’s not the cheap way. It is, though, the right way.
In recent years, the hunter has placed increasing emphasis on lightweight gear, from his boots to his pack. Riflescopes have not avoided these market trends. It is one reason the steel tube has all but vanished, replaced by aluminum. But, all aluminum is not created equal. While aluminum tubes are certainly lighter than steel, they are not as resistant to dents, damage and stresses. Inexpensive riflescopes use thin aluminum, allowing their makers to brag about how light they are. Saving a few ounces in aluminum will result in a less costly scope. The hunter will pay a huge price, though, the first time they accidentally drop their rifle.
“Unfortunately,” a Nightforce engineer told me, “the customer can’t determine the thickness or the quality of the aluminum used when they’re shopping for a scope. The only time they’ll discover it is when they bang their scope against a rock or a tree, and the scope—and their hunt—are both finished.”
Nightforce explained that they prefer to use 6061-T6 aircraft-grade aluminum alloy, machined from solid bar stock, two to three times the thickness of inexpensive tubes. Lesser scopes use extruded or formed aluminum, at a substantial savings in cost—and in strength—compared to bar stock. “It’s possible to build an extremely lightweight riflescope,” the Nightforce technicians told me. “It’s also possible to build an extremely high quality riflescope. It is not physically possible to do both.”
Even mundane things like the quality of lubricants used affect the weatherproofing, smooth operation and longevity of a riflescope. Cheap lubricants can literally freeze in bitter cold, ending any hope of making elevation or magnification adjustments. In extreme heat, they can melt away like butter in a hot pan, putting metal against metal while contaminating internal elements.
During my visit at Nightforce, we literally analyzed every single component of their riflescopes. I was shocked at the cost differential between things like cheap O-rings and good ones, alloys versus cast metals, and skilled handwork versus mass production. I think I even whistled a couple of times. I came away with one basic conclusion: a really good riflescope isn’t cheap to build. Some consumers think there must be a huge profit margin built into a $2000 riflescope, and that simply isn’t true. They’re expensive to buy because they’re expensive to make.
I was once told by a brilliant individual in South Africa, who had long ago forgotten more about hunting and shooting than I will ever know, that “only a rich man can afford a cheap riflescope.”
He was right. It is much less expensive to buy a good product once than to replace an inferior product many times over. It is beyond my means to pay for “the hunt of a lifetime” more than once in my lifetime because my riflescope caused me to miss a chance at a trophy.
Regardless of advertising claims, there are at present only three or four manufacturers in the world at committed to building the best possible riflescope, regardless of cost. Are they worth it? Probably more than in any other facet of hunting and shooting, with optics, you get what you pay for. Even if most of what you’re paying for, you can’t see.
The folks at Applied Ballistics recently shared with us a summary of their educational seminar series. To some, there is a (pardon the pun) "magic bullet" in long range shooting. Perhaps it's the latest bullet design, tweaking their brass prep ritual, or obtaining the latest piece of kit. Yes, these will most likely provide a benefit to the average shooter. However, developing a solid understanding of the fundametals of ballistics, and knowing which pieces of information are the most critical for your particular shooting application should be a key component in any long range shooting system.
Applied Ballistics Seminar
by Mitchell Fitzpatrick - Applied Ballistics
In the modern age of long range shooting, long range marksmen have more information and technology available to them than ever before. Advancements in all areas of the shooting industry have brought obtaining exceptional performance at long range into reach of nearly anyone interested, thus allowing even the most experienced marksmen to extend their ranges. With all of this information being generated, getting it into the hands of shooters to expand their capabilities has become the goal. Bryan Litz started Applied Ballistics LLC when he recognized that there was a lack of information available to shooters, and that much of the information that was available was flawed or inaccurate. This led to the testing of ballistic coefficients and other ballistic characteristics that Applied Ballistics is now known for by using precise, accurate equipment while following the scientific method to obtain precise and useable data.
Since then, Applied Ballistics has been publishing this data in books and other forms of media to get this information into the hands of shooters in an easy to understand manner while still thoroughly discussing topics and presenting data. This has been very effective at helping shooters increase their range and hit probability, pushing the sport of long range shooting farther than ever before. However, we receive many questions on a daily basis about topics that are covered in, and also questions that go above and beyond, the material presented in our books.
In an effort to further the education of shooters interested in long range shooting, regardless of their experience level, Applied Ballistics has started hosting 2 day seminars aimed at getting the information shooters need into their hands. These seminars are heavily content based and follow along with the material found in the Applied Ballistics series of books. This content is presented in person in a relatively informal manner, allowing shooters to join in the discussion and ask questions while material is being presented. Material consists of everything from understanding the difference between accuracy and precision to more advanced ballistic properties such as limit cycle yaw. The goal is to engage shooters to ensure they understand the information they need to be a successful long range marksman. Whether your goal is to excel in competitive long range shooting, increase your effective range for hunting, or tactical/law enforcement applications, understanding the ballistics of your weapon system is the key to success for long range shooting.
In addition to covering material on ballistics, the implementation of this information is a key component of the curriculum as well. The Applied Ballistics Seminar is an excellent opportunity to learn how to operate AB’s computer based software as well as other devices with integrated AB software such as the Kestrel weather meters. Guest speakers from across the shooting industry are brought in to present information and give shooters the opportunity to engage them with questions that pertain to their fields of expertise. All of this combined creates an unequaled learning opportunity where shooters can absorb as much information about long range shooting as they can.
Caught in the Crosshairs - Part Two
Sorting though the styles, the choices and the marketing hype to choose an effective hunting reticle
Last month we looked at the development of the modern riflescope reticle, focal planes, MOA vs. Mil-Radians, and the pros and cons of illuminated reticles. This time, we’re going to take a hard look through the viewfinder at the characteristics that make a good hunting reticle, versus one you might come to regret.
Styles of reticles
Post and crosshair
First, there were simple crosshairs, which provided an aiming point but little more. The Europeans were the first to experiment with modifications, the simplest being the addition of heavier posts, usually at the 3, 6 and 9 o’clock positions. These posts tend to draw the eye to the center of the reticle, with nothing to clutter the sight picture, and such designs remain extremely popular today. They are especially useful for running and/or dangerous game applications, where quick shots can be required. With the European love for hunting driven boar, usually at close ranges, you can see why such designs—sometimes called “duplex” or “post and crosshairs”—evolved. The German No. 4 reticle remains the most popular all-around reticle in most of Europe. There are better choices, though, for mountain hunting, which usually involves longer ranges and more deliberate, carefully considered shots.
There is a dizzying array of choices that can be grouped under the broad (and often misleading) heading of “ballistic” reticles. In simplest terms, this means adding markings to a reticle that in some way tie into the inherent ballistics of a rifle and its cartridge, providing you with holdover points and/or rangefinding information.
When I learned to shoot, basic crosshairs were about the only choice. We sighted in a rifle “a couple of inches high at 100” and assumed that we would be more or less on target (if the target was pretty large) out to 250 or 300 yards. This is still the technique used by vast number of casual hunters, but it is like using a rotary dial phone when you can have an iPhone instead. They both work, but one does the job a lot more elegantly.
The purpose, both of the “couple inches high” theory and of a ballistic reticle, is to compensate for the effects of gravity. As with Isaac Newton’s apple, a bullet fired from a rifle will eventually fall to the ground. The goal is to eliminate the need to estimate holdover and to dispense with guessing, which more often than not results in a miss.
Some reticles accomplish this goal extremely well. Those are the exceptions. The truth of the matter is that far too many “ballistic” reticles are marketing gimmicks, overly complicated, completely impractical, or all of the above. Do not get taken in by exaggerated advertising claims.
Early attempts at compensating for a bullet’s inherent downward trajectory required you to know things like the chest-to-shoulder height of a given game animal, or even more absurd, the size of its antlers or horns. Align the reticle markings accordingly, and you will instantly know the range and where to aim. Right. This might work if you only hunt one type of game, and if every one of its species is exactly the same size. It also helps if you have several minutes to do all this, and your target doesn’t move. Thankfully, most of these creations have gone by the wayside, but a few still persist. Avoid them. Please.
Another type of design, sometimes referred as BDC (bullet drop compensating), incorporates lines, circles, dots, or other such markings on the vertical scale of a reticle that are intended to provide holdover points at various ranges. Do they work? Some do. Many don’t. What I can guarantee is that virtually none of them will work right perfectly right out of the box, and you will have some homework to do to make them perform as intended.
Such reticles are tied to the ballistics of your rifle and the trajectory of your load. Published ballistic charts and tables are only estimates, and if you take them as gospel you will be disappointed. There are so many variables—bullet design and ballistic coefficient, bullet weight, powder, case, primer, barrel length, and more—it is unrealistic to expect an off-the-shelf reticle of this design to be right on target, literally or figuratively. Even the exact same cartridge of the same caliber will shoot to different points in different makes of rifles.
Does this mean that drop-compensating reticles are ineffective? No. What it means is that the only way to confirm indicated holdover points is by live firing at the range at each marked distance. Being inherently lazy, I’d love to put a shiny new riflescope on one of my rifles with complete confidence that it will shoot exactly where the markings say, with no effort on my part. For that matter, I’d like to win the lottery, too. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as “one size fits all.”
One of the more effective ballistic systems I’ve seen consists of the Nightforce Velocity™ 600 and Velocity™ 1000 reticles. The 600 is designed for accurate shot placement to 600 yards; the 1000 adds more holdover markings for ranges to 1000 yards.
There are multiple versions offered of each reticle, the only difference being the distance between the holdover marks. Nightforce found that virtually every known rifle caliber matches almost perfectly with one of just a few reticle configurations. The concept is based upon the bullet weight, the bullet’s ballistic coefficient, and above all, the muzzle velocity of a given load. The validity of this approach was proven to me when I ran the ballistic information on two radically different calibers of mine through Nightforce’s online calculator: a .30-06 shooting a 180-grain bullet at 2750 fps, and a .330 Dakota firing a 250-grain bullet at 2765 fps. No way, I thought, that the same holdover markings would apply to a 180-grain and 250-grain bullet. But they did. The same Velocity™ 600 MV (medium velocity) works admirably for both, with minimum deviation from the reticle’s standard markings.
For reference, see the “Velocity Reticle Calculator7000ft” chart, which was generated for my .30-06. While a 200-yard zero is standard for the center point of a Velocity 600 reticle, in this case, Nightforce recommended a 205-yard zero. This minimizes any deviation from the reticle’s holdover markings across the entire 600-yard trajectory. For example, if I hold at the 300-yard mark, my bullet will hit 0.4076 inches low. At 400 yards, 0.8793 inches low. At 500 yards point of impact is 1.0042 inches low, and at 600 yards, I am only 0.0511 inches low.
So, the maximum deviation from the reticle’s indicated distance markings at any point out to 600 yards is a mere one inch. Maximum deviation using the same reticle on my .330 was 1.6411 inches, that at 500 yards. I can certainly live with that in a hunting environment.
One real advantage of such a system is that it is quick, and we all know that speed is often of the essence when hunting. If you know the range to a target, you simply choose the proper holdover marking, aim dead on and fire. There are no calculations, no charts to consult, no guessing. The reticle is relatively uncluttered and applicable to just about any hunting environment, with the possible exception of dangerous game.
It is imperative, though, that with such a system you must use real-world muzzle velocity figures, determined by a chronograph. That is the only way to ensure precise point of impact at various ranges.
It works. I’ve dropped an elk at 550 yards, and put a bullet through a six-inch opening at just under 300 yards, due entirely to the reticle, not to my shooting prowess. This was only after confirming its performance at the range, though.
The bottom line? Ballistic reticles can be extremely useful for the mountain hunter, if a few conditions are met:
• The reticle must not be overly cluttered or complicated.
• It must do its job quickly and with a minimum of thought.
• Its markings and promised performance must be matched as closely as possible to your rifle and your load.
• You must verify all reticle markings—and advertising claims—through live firing at multiple distances.
Dots, hash marks, stadia and subtensions
It should be no surprise that tactical and military professionals were instrumental in driving the development of effective ballistic reticles, and one of the earliest and most successful designs is the Mil-Dot. The first practical application of the Mil-Dot reticles was in the Unertl 10x fixed-power riflescopes used by the U.S. Marine Corps snipers from WW II through the Vietnam war. They provide reliable range estimating as well as accurate elevation and windage holds. They are based on the mil-radian system of metric measurement, one mil being equal to 10 centimeters at 100 meters.
The Mil-Dot reticle laid the groundwork for most truly effective ballistic designs that followed, due to its markings and line widths being universally consistent. For example, the distance between each dot is precisely one mil at 100 meters. The dots themselves are .25 mil in diameter. Each line thickness and distance between points also has a specific measurement in mils or fractions of mils.
The Mil-Dot reticle allows the shooter to accurately estimate distance to target—in meters or yards—by knowing the size of the target and applying it to a mathematical formula. This would, in turn, tell the shooter precisely which dot to use for elevation holdover and windage compensation.
Mil-Dot reticles remain extremely popular with military and law enforcement professionals as well as with accomplished civilian shooters. “Accomplished” is the key word, though. The Mil-Radian system of measurement (see Part One of this article), while extremely accurate, requires a lot of time to master, and quick and effective use of the reticle itself demands a good amount of training and practice.
Since math and I never got along, I prefer the minute-of-angle (MOA) system of measurement—similar in application to mil-radians, but easier for me to comprehend since it is based on inches and yards. One MOA is 1.047 inches at 100 yards—we’ll call it an even one inch for simplicity. Two MOA is approximately two inches at 200 yards, three inches at 300 yards, and so on. The markings on an MOA-based reticle, properly known as stadia, correspond to minutes of angle or fractions thereof. The spacing/thickness of the markings are called “subtension.” The reticle subtends to a different measurement at every range.
This sounds more complicated than it really is. Let’s say your rifle shoots 16 inches low at 400 yards. At 400 yards, one MOA equals approximately four inches. So, assuming you have zeroed your scope at 100 yards, you would use the four-MOA mark below centerline to hold on your target and this would provide the necessary 16 inches of elevation.
We have to remember, though, that depending upon the scope, subtensions can vary according to magnification settings. And, if you intend to use an MOA reticle for rangefinding (target size in inches, divided by MOA times 100, equals range to target in yards), it is only accurate at a specific magnification setting, usually marked on the riflescope. While laser rangefinders have reduced the need to estimate range with a reticle, it is still a useful technique to know.
So, is an MOA- or mil-radian-based ballistic reticle a good choice for mountain hunting? Absolutely, under certain conditions. If you expect to regularly encounter long shots, say 400 yards and beyond, it is the quickest and most precise means of applying an accurate holdover (and windage compensation, if necessary). It is also an excellent choice for smaller targets. There is, though, a substantial learning curve, and you will want to spend a lot of time at the range. A good ballistic reticle is a remarkable tool, but on the side of a mountain in fading light is not the time you want to figure out how to use it.
The best of both worlds?
If you find yourself occasionally hunting running game, if you rarely take shots much over 300 yards, if you at times hunt in thick cover, or if you simply prefer a less complicated, more traditional reticle, that brings us full circle back to the traditional post and crosshairs design. That doesn’t mean you have to go back to guessing, though, as a number of newer such reticles have been engineered to provide accurate holdover and windage reference points in a simple, uncluttered design.
One of my favorites is the IHR™ (International Hunting Reticle), a Nightforce creation. Note the measurements in the subtension diagram. The floating center crosshair (C) is precisely six MOA in width and height. The distance from the crosshair to the thin open posts (E) is exactly three MOA. If you needed six MOA of elevation, for example, to compensate for bullet drop over a long distance, if you held on your target at the tip of the thin post below centerline, that is what you would get (one-half the height of the floating crosshair = three MOA, plus the open space below it, an additional three MOA).
All markings on this deceptively simple design are directly related to MOA. The D measurement, for example, is 20 MOA. H is 37 MOA. The thickness of the heavy posts, B, is 1.5 MOA.
Six MOA at 500 yards, by the way, is approximately 30 inches, pretty close to the drop of a .300 Win Mag at that distance. Your mileage may vary, but you can see that memorizing just a few of the subtensions in this reticle would give you some rather precise reference points for elevation and windage compensation.
It sure beats guessing, and it’s a lot quicker than consulting a drop chart or trying to estimate the size of your target in the field. Plus, these simple calculations can be performed without having to take your eye off of your target.
No, it’s not as precise as a detailed MOA or Mil-Radian reticle, but it results in a reticle that’s just as effective on a deer in the woods as on a sheep a mountaintop away. Most manufacturers should publish, or can provide you with, their reticle MOA subtensions. If they cannot, I suggest finding a different manufacturer.
More questions…and answers
Using a borrowed rifle and scope once cost me a nice muntjac during a hunt in England. The muntjac is a small deer that stands about 20 inches high at the shoulder. The reticle I was using was so thick it resembled crossed two by fours. It would have been fine for a big wild boar being driven through the woods, but at 300 yards it completely covered the tiny animal. Shot placement? I couldn’t even see where I would have placed a shot.
Conversely, an extremely thin reticle, such as those preferred by varmint hunters and competition shooters, who are concerned with fractions of an inch, are often too fine for big game applications. They can easily disappear against the body of a dark animal and are difficult to see in low light or thick cover.
Like Goldilocks, you are looking for one that is just right. It must be thick enough to see easily, but not so thick that it obscures your target.
A reticle should be specifically tailored to the scope you choose, too. A reticle designed for maximum performance in a high-magnification riflescope, for example, a 5 to 25x model, will generally not provide good results in a 2.5-10x riflescope, and vice versa.
Buying a good riflescope/reticle combination is a substantial investment. If your friendly local dealer will allow it, I highly recommend test-driving a reticle/scope combination for a few days before plunking down a pile of cash. Take it home and see how it looks at dawn and dusk, not just at midday. Try it on neighborhood dogs and cats (not mounted on a rifle, please) at close distances and at long ranges, to get an idea of how it looks against an animal. Bring it to your eye quickly and make sure it works well with your vision. If it has rangefinding and/or holdover capabilities, make sure you are comfortable with them, that they are not overly complex, and that they will help, not hinder your hunting style.
If you can’t borrow the scope/reticle for a test drive, at the very least, call the customer service department of the scope manufacturer you are considering. Tell them about you, about your rifle, and about your hunting style, and ask for recommendations. They should be more than willing to talk hunting with you. If you perceive that the person on the other end of the line is not a hunter, or is reading to you from a catalog, I suggest considering another brand.
Wrestling with reticles
We hunters are fond of spending long hours debating the merits of one caliber over another. We’ll spend years saving for a fine custom rifle. We’ll devour every written word on a new riflescope. But how often have you heard a spirited discussion around the campfire about a reticle? This is unfortunate, because ultimately, it is the reticle that allows you to translate all the potential of rifle, cartridge and optics into an accurate shot on your target.
Next time you’re in the market for a new scope, give some thought to your reticle, too. Just don’t make it an afterthought.
Caught in the Crosshairs - Part One
If you have your sights on a new riflescope, you might want to think about your reticle first. Here’s what you need to consider.
Hunting was a lot simpler 30 or 40 years ago. Riflescopes came only in a few basic flavors, and about all we had to worry about was the scope’s magnification range and if it was of reasonably decent quality. Rarely was a choice of reticles even offered, and most hunters accepted the basic “crosshairs” that came as standard equipment because there simply weren’t any other options.
As with other aspects of modern life, radical new technologies have arrived in optics industry…one result being a vast, albeit sometimes confusing, array of new reticle designs. The good news is that in conjunction with remarkable advances in riflescope design and quality, and vastly improved bullet construction for flat-shooting calibers, today’s rifle/scope/reticle combinations are capable of pinpoint precision at extreme distances unheard of just a couple of decades ago.
The bad news? Choosing a reticle now requires a great deal of thought and soul-searching. Some are extremely sophisticated and user-friendly. Others, frankly, are little more than marketing gimmicks. A reticle must be appropriate to the type of game pursued by the hunter, his hunting environment, and perhaps most important, to his attitude. The right one can be your BFF. Make the wrong choice, and a reticle could prove to be your worst enemy.
There is a reason why the riflescopes available from the handful of manufacturers building the very best optics can cost well into four figures. These companies are crafting scopes using the finest raw materials and most advanced manufacturing processes possible, scopes capable of previously unobtainable resolution and repeatability. This is why skilled shooters are able to push the envelope of distance and accuracy ever further. Consider, for example, one of the recent world records, shot by Matthew D. Kline using a Nightforce scope. Mr. Kline put 10 shots into 2.815 inches at 1000 yards. There are days I would be happy with that at 100 yards.
The reticle is what translates all the inherent capability of riflescopes like these into something you can see—and ultimately apply to your target. This is why the proper reticle/scope combination for your application is so critical.
For the purpose of this article, we’re going to concentrate on what the hunter needs to consider, especially the mountain hunter, and leave the radically different concerns of tactical professionals, competition shooters and military snipers for another day. I am indebted to my friends at Nightforce Optics, who long ago realized that exceptional riflescopes and extremely precise purpose-built reticles are inseparable, for much of the information that follows.
To illustrate just how important reticles have become in the buying decision, I asked Sean Murphy, marketing project manager at Nightforce, what their customers say about reticles when they’re considering a new riflescope. “Sometimes I think we sell just as many riflescopes because of our reticles as due to the scopes themselves,” he laughed. “We created most of our own reticle designs,” he said, “and they have proven to be so effective that many of our customers request a specific reticle first, then choose a scope it is available in.”
What is a reticle?
The term “reticle” is derived from the Latin “reticulum,” which means “net,” referring to a net of fine lines. Originally, reticles were made of hair (thus the term “crosshairs”) or of actual spider webs. Finding that such materials were a bit tricky to work with, optics manufacturers eventually began using extremely thin metal wire installed by hand. This technique was commonplace until recent years, and some time back I had the privilege of seeing this process. I watched a highly skilled individual, possessed of extremely steady hands and nerves, working under a high-power magnifying glass with tweezers to secure these microscopic bits of wire into place. It was a demanding procedure, a talent that took years to master, and the costs involved and the inherent design limitations of physical wires have made this increasingly rare.
Most reticles these days are etched into glass, often by lasers. This allows a virtually infinite variety of designs, and detail that would be impossible to achieve in any other fashion. It is still, however, a demanding process, and poorly made glass reticles are not highly durable.
A glass reticle can absorb light, as do all the lens elements in a riflescope, thus diminishing light transmission. The better manufacturers negate this, however, by multi-coating the reticle glass just as they do with the large lenses in a scope.
The plain truth about focal planes
In the construction of a riflescope, the reticle itself can be located in either the front (first focal plane) or rear (second focal plane) optical plane. Until recently, most riflescopes sold in North America were second focal plane design, while Europeans often preferred first focal plane configurations.
In a variable power second focal plane riflescope, the reticle, as you see it, does not change in size across the scope’s magnification range. In other words, it appears the same at four power as it would at, say, ten power.
In a first focal plane design, the reticle appears to grow larger as magnification increases. This can be disconcerting if you have not used a first focal plane scope.
Why the two styles? And is one better than another? The answer is, it depends.
Most hunters will be perfectly happy with a second focal plane reticle. This is what most of us are used to, and it presents the same reticle picture regardless of the scope’s magnification setting. There are many more scopes available with second focal plane reticles, and many more reticle designs available for them.
A reticle with first focal plane placement appears to grow as you increase the scope’s magnification. Hunters not used to this complain, “The reticle gets bigger.” That is not entirely accurate. The reticle stays in the exact proportion to the target across a scope’s entire magnification range. So, while your target will appear larger at 10x than at 3x, the reticle will appear proportionately larger, too. This characteristic has specific advantages for tactical shooters, many law enforcement and military professionals, and others who prefer its distinct attributes. Because the target and the reticle are always in the same relationship, it can provide sophisticated rangefinding information and can be extremely useful in rapid-fire environments where the shooter expects to encounter multiple targets at varying ranges and magnification settings.
Because of how the internal mechanics of a variable power riflescope function, first focal plane placement also absolutely guarantees there will be no shift in point of impact across a scope’s entire magnification range, while a poorly built second-focal-plane riflescope can place a bullet differently at high magnification settings than at lower settings. This shift might be negligible at 100 yards or so, maybe only a fraction of an inch, but any such error is multiplied as range increases. The easiest way to avoid this is simply to buy a good riflescope.
For hunting purposes, you will most likely be happiest with a second focal plane version. If you need the specialized behavior of a first focal plane reticle, chances are you already know that.
Illuminated or non-illuminated?
Most scope manufacturers offer the option of illuminated reticles. This simply means that some portion, or all, of the reticle can be illuminated, usually to varying degrees of brightness via a built-in rheostat. Better scopes provide very subtle levels of lighting, beginning at barely perceptible and continuing in small, user-selectable increments to quite bright. The purpose of this illumination is to allow you to see the center portion of the reticle at first or last light, when standard black crosshairs can disappear against the dark body of an animal.
Is it essential? Not necessarily. In my 40 years of hunting, there have been only four or five times I could not make out my crosshairs for a shot. But, if I was zeroed in on a real trophy, in those instances the illumination was priceless. If you are out at dawn and still out at dusk, or if you often encounter bad weather, it is definitely worth the small added cost of reticle illumination.
If you go that direction, make certain that your scope offers multiple—and subtle—degrees of illumination. While most reticle illumination is red, since red does not degrade night vision as much as other colors do, if you cannot control the brightness adequately, a bright flash of red light is going to leave you blind for several minutes.
The better manufacturers often build their illumination switches so you can pre-select a brightness setting appropriate for your conditions, then switch it off to conserve battery power. A small turn of the illumination control will then restore your illumination to your chosen setting. If you have to cycle through different brightness levels, not only is this inconvenient in the field, but it can ruin your night vision.
While most hunters value illuminated reticles for low-light use, the brighter settings can also be quite useful in extreme glare, snow, desert and sun-baked rocky environments.
A few states in the U.S. consider illuminated reticles to be “lights,” and prohibit their use for hunting. Check your regulations if you’re going to be hunting in one of those uninformed jurisdictions.
MOA, Mil-Radians, and More
Another recent development in riflescopes (and reticles) has been the choice of both MOA (Minute of Angle) and Mil-Radian elevation and windage adjustments. MOA adjustments have been around since the Jurassic age of riflescopes—except we used to call them “quarter-inch clicks.” The elevation and windage adjustments of most riflescopes (at least, those built for the American market) were marked in ¼ inch increments, the idea being that one click of the turret would move your bullet’s point of impact ¼ inch at 100 yards.
This was more than adequate when “long range” was considered perhaps 300 yards, and anything further was, regardless of the Annie Oakley-level prowess claimed by many hunters, in reality a Hail Mary effort. As rifles and riflescopes have become ever more capable of pinpoint precision at extreme distances, a 100-yard measuring stick no longer made sense. Thus, “minute of angle”—terminology that used to be heard only among military and competition shooters—has entered the lexicon of the average hunter. It is a highly precise reference point and infinitely more accurate method of determining shot placement at every distance than “couple inches high at 100.”
I asked Klaus Johnson, one of Nightforce’s top engineers and a man not intimidated by numbers, to explain MOA. “It is an angular system of measurement,” he said. “Many shooters think that one MOA equals one inch at 100 yards, but that is not entirely accurate. A true MOA is one-sixtieth of a degree, which is 1.047 inches at 100 yards.
“Because it is an angular measurement, it is not an equal, linear amount at all distances. So, one MOA is 1.047 inches at 100 yards, 2.094 inches at 200 yards, 3.131 inches at 300 yards, and so on.”
For the hunter, it is generally close enough (and much easier) to consider one MOA being one inch at 100 yards. This brings us full circle to ¼ inch clicks, the most common elevation and windage adjustments on hunting riflescopes. It is more accurate, though, to refer to them as ¼ MOA clicks. Why?
Because if and when you venture into a more sophisticated “ballistic” reticle, you will often be given the choice between an MOA or a Mil-Radian design, which also corresponds to the type of adjustments offered on your riflescope.
What about Mil-Radians? Mils are also an angular system of measurement, but quite different from MOAs. One mil is equal to 1/6283 of a circle, or 3.43775 MOA. One mil equates to 3.599 inches at 100 yards, or 1 centimeter at 100 meters.
Mil-Radian advocates claim that this discipline is more flexible and inherently more accurate than relying upon MOA. It is particularly appropriate when operating in metric environments, since it is based on increments of 1000. Becoming proficient in Mil-Radians is considerably more complicated, though, than dealing with MOAs. Even I can grasp the concept of one inch at 100 yards. Unless you are trained in military shooting or have prior experience in the Mil-Radian arena, my advice is to stick with MOAs. This will serve you well when we explore the remarkable capabilities of MOA-based reticles a little later.
The MOA-based Nightforce MOA™R reticle.
The Nightforce MIL-R™, an example of a Mil-Radian reticle designed for use with Mil-Radian elevation and windage adjustments.
Laying the groundwork
In Part One of our reticle journey, we’ve covered some pretty basic—and maybe a bit boring—details about how reticles and riflescopes function together. Part Two promises to be a bit more exciting, as we explore reticle styles, hunting applications of MOA-based reticles, and how to choose a reticle that just might open your eyes—literally—to new worlds of precision and confidence in your shooting. We’ll even look at how the most basic reticle can hold hidden secrets that will provide accurate holdovers and eliminate a lot of guessing. See you next time!